An engrossing but lengthy religious tale about a warrior’s mission.

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THE CROSS AND THE EMPEROR

In this debut novel, a traveler arrives in Wales in the years following Jesus’ Crucifixion, calling on a battle-hardened warlord to aid in spreading Christianity.

Caradog ap Bran is a Welsh warrior from Caerlech—modern-day Cardiff—waging a guerrilla war against the invading Roman soldiers who murdered his family. Through the violence appears “the Messenger,” a man called Joseph of Arimathea, who has journeyed from Judea to tell of the recent Crucifixion of Jesus and his resurrection, and further spread his new gospel. But Joseph’s Messiah has given him another task as well, to not just convert those who glorify lesser gods, but to specifically find Caradog, who has been prophesized to one day stand before the Romans on their own ground and preach directly to his enemies. At first unconvinced, Caradog encounters yet another man, a Roman centurion he has captured, who was present at the Crucifixion, and has been sent by Jesus to assist the warrior after Joseph has departed. But enemies to their holy purpose abound, not just the Romans, who still wish to take over Wales and have begun to realize what they stirred up in Judea, but also the aged wizard Merlon and the alluring enchantress Rhewbina, mystically powered agents of the Welsh’s serpentine god Ocelus. Sweeting’s absorbing tale deftly pulls information from historical and biblical records, presuming Joseph of Arimathea was the first to bring early Christianity to Wales. The novel is meticulously detailed, bringing to life the rustic British countryside, the opulence of Roman fortifications and armor, and the furs and functionality of the Welsh villages, while recounting the battle tactics and politics of both sides. The book suffers from its length (nearly 400 pages), regularly repeating information unnecessarily, a problem that could be easily solved by sharper editing. The story is told in a modern style, which is occasionally distracting when using phrases like “alarm bells sounded” and words like “curveball,” among others, despite the period. The first entry in a series, the book ends with numerous cliffhangers, from threats on Joseph’s life to Caradog’s uncertainty on his path, effectively setting the stage for an epic.

An engrossing but lengthy religious tale about a warrior’s mission.

Pub Date: June 20, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5127-8665-1

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Westbow Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 19, 2017

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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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